Chris Campanioni (re)creates his TED Talk
Double Exposure. The Author Chris Campanioni with his book of poems Death Of Art.
The idea for my TED Talk came to me the way so many others do; occurrences, lines, scenes and stories. I was somewhere and my mind was somewhere else, on the elliptical machine and glancing every other stride or second to the HD flat screens, four or five of them in a line, propped up like a shooting gallery for optimal viewing, the optimal viewer, always in one place and our minds in quite another; the truest marker of modernity is our willingness to be displaced. We bow down for that kind of exile.
Anyway, every other stride or second, more or less, my eyes kept finding other bodies, figures, flickering high-def images, and the privilege to watch them all simultaneously. Everything all the time and at the same time.
I stopped moving my eyes eventually: an Applebee’s ad, something about Hot Shot Whisky Chicken. Really, I have no use for products; I am always more interested by the performance.
In the ad, one group of men eyes one group of women from across the crowded restaurant. All it takes is a close-up of the Hot Shot Whisky Chicken, a montage of plates and teeth and hands kissed off with a few pitchers of beer, and the couples converge at a single table, everyone paired up and ecstatic like the best and worst film musicals.
“You know, I don’t watch much TV,” I thought to myself, still striding, still sweating, but now also writing, too. Everything all the time and at the same time. “But I like the commercials,” I continued.
“I think we can learn a lot about our own lives through advertisements, like this recent one from Applebee’s.”
I was crafting my entry point; I was delivering my TED Talk, to an audience of one in the basement of a gym in Cobble Hill.
In real life, people don’t meet new people at Applebee’s.
“In real life, many people at Applebee’s are sitting down, looking at their phones, right?” I thought, asking myself but also asking you, the viewer, the reader, the audience.
I wanted to talk about the questions I taught about, the questions I wrote about, the questions that informed my life but also re-formed it, mine and everyone else’s. And I wanted it to be empowering; criticizing a culture without asking questions or exploring our choices is too easy and not at all rewarding.
So I wanted to start with a question, and then another. Asking the audience to raise their hands if they drove here this morning, asking what it was they did when they reached a red light. The Talk was in South Florida after all. Everyone drives everywhere in South Florida.
Questions became my opening into a dialogue I wanted to initiate with our culture, more than just whoever was present at the Talk, in the flesh—whatever that means in 2016—but also everyone who would be watching it today, tomorrow, the next day. Living in between, I thought on the elliptical, and then much later. The self-made space in the age of social media.
When I was invited to participate in this TED event, I told everyone I knew—or didn’t know—on Facebook, Twitter, and of course in the physical world. Pretty much everyone had the same reply. They liked me, they poked me, they patted me on the back. Then they asked: But what the heck is a liminal space?
Nearly everyone’s hands rise, as if on cue. This is going better than I expected, I think. Better than I imagined and better than I’d planned, the way I planned it out, weeks ago.
“Well, according to a 2013 study in the journal Industry Prevention nearly one in three people are distracted by their cell phones while in their cars, on foot, or crossing busy streets.
“Now maybe you don’t want to admit it or maybe you don’t even notice it, and that might be the point. It’s important to speak about cultural norms because they so often go unspoken.”
And here is where I lie, at least a little. Here is where I fabricate the truth, or make my own version of it, something I’ve always felt comfortable doing, as a writer. Something I’m even good at it.
“On the way here from New York,” I say, smiling, reciting the lie in my head even as I say it, “I spoke with a great couple who were also from Brooklyn. They were sitting next to me at JFK. They’d been married for forty years. They told me they’d met at Coney Island, on the F train heading toward Coney Island.”
I pause, I breathe, I smile. You can probably see me doing all three, in quick succession, in the video.
“That got me thinking about private parts in public spaces.”
A frame on the presentation switches, a slide re-surfaces, the title bears the name Private Parts In Public Spaces, a name I liked when I’d first coined it, because it felt wrong, just a little, and it also felt right.
“Public spaces used to be the prerequisite to connection. You struck up conversations with strangers at bus stops, cafés, parks, train stations. But today public spaces are the prerequisite to disconnect.”
I turn to the audience. I reach for my phone in my pocket, but I know it’s not there. I emote lost, or try to.
“What do we do in public spaces?” I ask. What do we do, what do we do, what do we do, I think, silently, picturing myself at JFK, sitting across from no one, reading a book.
“We take out our phones,” I say, pausing again, but only for effect. “And we take ourselves with them. So how do we fix this?”
“The answer is with medicine. Sort of,” I add, quick, casual, a little glib. Cue laughter and I get it. In the footage from the live feed you can even see a camerawoman crouched behind me, smiling, laughing, baring actual teeth.
“In various moments of our history, societies develop ‘social antibodies’—defenses against harmful sociological behaviors. Think about cigarette smoking,” I say, thinking about my flight back to New York City the next day, how early I’ll have to check-out tomorrow morning. “Smoking in public became taboo in just a few years after cultural norms changed. The remedy to public disconnection is in developing new norms that make it socially undesirable to disconnect in public.”
“What does language have to do with any of this?” I ask the room. Waiting but not really waiting for the room’s response. I teach about language, and the theme for this TED event is called Liminality In Language so I have to bring this discussion back, just a little, and provide some perspective. Something that makes contact with actual discourse, the words we use and how we use them.
“Language is more than just words,” I say. “Language is an act. Language is a discourse. Language dictates those cultural norms, rules, and social scripts we willingly or unwittingly perform.”
Pause, smile, pretend to make eye contact with an actual member of the audience. In reality, I can’t see a thing. Not really. Not anyone, not really.
“You know, when I was invited to participate in this TED event, I told everyone I knew—or didn’t know,” I add, “on Facebook, Twitter, and of course in the physical world. Pretty much everyone had the same reply. They liked me, they poked me, they patted me on the back. Then they asked: ‘But what the heck is a liminal space?’”
More laughter. Heads nodding, I imagine. If I could see any heads.
“Liminal means to be on the periphery, to be on the edge, to exist in the boundaries between several different things, and always on the verge of becoming. It means being fluid, which according to a PEW study, the majority of Millennials identify as our prevailing cultural norm.
Likes become locks, and personalizing becomes profiling, driving individuals to ever more rigid and extreme positions,” I continue. “It’s great for community-building, but horrible if you are in the line of questioning cultural norms, which we all need to be in the business of. Without questions, we can’t create answers; without a response, we can’t create a dialogue.
“Every generation has their defining idea. For Generation X it was ‘Diversity.’ For Baby Boomers it was ‘Individuality.’ For the silent generation it was ‘Duty.’ It’s important to identify these defining ideas because they form the norms and rules a particular culture adheres to.”
Or something like that, because I’m certain I stutter as I punctuate this point, making it very likely the whole thing has been erased. Delete. Never to live again on the Internet or elsewhere, except maybe the memories of everyone here.
“I think I’ve been liminal long before I knew what the word meant.”
And here is where it gets personal. In reality, everything is personal, because we are people, right? Living, breathing people, with feelings, hopefully. So many feelings, and all the time. And I knew from reading Talk Like TED (St. Martin’s Press, 2014) by Carmine Gallo, which my girlfriend had gifted me for Christmas, and which I’d only read about a week ago, by which I mean a week before this talk, that it pays to get personal. In fact, I think it’s even written that way in the book. The more personal you get with the audience, the more they’ll trust you. And people don’t listen to people they don’t trust.
“In 1985, I was born two months and two days premature,” I begin. A slide above my head shows my premature body in an incubator, limbs and torso and head connected to half a dozen tubes, a little bloodied, a little beaten. “In 1985, under those circumstances,” I continue, imagining the tears welling up in my audience’s eyes, crystal raindrops flowing through the dark of the amphitheater, “you had a twenty percent chance to live normally. Not to live, but to live normally.
“I didn’t know any of this until I Googled it,” I say, pausing for too long, forgetting whatever it is that comes next.
“About a month ago,” I add, finally, the chronology of my Google search just hanging there, like the pause between songs.
“But anyway, it would take me many years to realize that normalcy wasn’t something I should aspire to, that maybe not being normal was the best thing that could have ever happened to me.”
The picture shifts, or it’s supposed to. But it doesn’t. Still me, two pounds and two ounces in 1985, looking worse than the character in “Operation,” the battery-operated board game where players are asked to perform surgeries on a stranger with a pair of tweezers connected with wire to the board. The promise of a cash payment according to the degree of difficulty.
“And not just the circumstance but who I was born to had as much of a stake in my liminal space, and who I would become; how I would get there.”
The slide should show my mother, my father, my abuela, too, all of us sitting and standing in a living room with blue walls in Westchester, Miami, or what it looked like in the late Eighties. And me draped in a white t-shirt emblazoned with The Real Ghostbusters.
“I was born to a Cuban father and a Polish mother and I grew up with the intermingling of very different cultures and languages in my home. No one had ever heard of a blond-haired Cuban with eyes that were more green than brown, at least not in suburban New Jersey.”
Oradell, I think, imagining it now on stage. A place that never changes, or at least a place that seems crystalized in my memory of childhood, always waiting for something. Still sometimes waiting for it.
“When I graduated from college and became a reporter in the evening, I started working as a model and actor in the mornings. People looked at me and either scoffed or laughed. When I began to write and publish poetry and prose, and started teaching at the City University of New York, many people in my environment thought it was odd.
“I was at odds with limitations, and with the labels that created them, and more than anything else, with our culture and our logic that allowed them to perpetuate.
“Like many of you,” I paused, pretending to scan the darkness, the half-held faces and hopefully their gaze, “it was difficult for me to identify myself with the various roles I performed; I could only see myself through a synthesis of all of the different roles that made me who I was, and I could only do that through writing, through language. And naturally, I experienced resistance. It was confusing for many of us and our idea of binaries. But what the liminal space makes clear is that binaries are outdated. They don’t exist. We shattered them. The Internet helped.
“We know that we act different in different situations,” I continue, speaking as though I were reading from my own syllabus, the course I designed at the College of Staten Island and Baruch College, the one for which I’d just called out sick. “Our mannerisms change, the tone of our voice changes, the language we speak changes, the clothes we wear changes. How we appear. Even our logic, our psychology changes. But for the first time in the history of the world, today we are able to cycle through our various selves at the same time, and we can thank technology for that.
“In previous years we would have to compartmentalize the roles we play. They didn’t coexist, they never interacted or intersected or informed one another. Today, we can play the role of student, daughter, girlfriend, photographer, and budding stock analyst simultaneously. On our mobile devices.
“But the flipside to all of this freedom to explore all the beautiful roles that make us us is often how limiting our decisions can be. This is what I call our Limited Liabilities.”
Public spaces used to be the prerequisite to connection. You struck up conversations with strangers at bus stops, cafés, parks, train stations. But today public spaces are the prerequisite to disconnect.
Cue slide, new title, a photo of Donald Trump, his hair waving like it’s on fire, like it always is or like it always does, a Twitter account meant to resemble his, and MUTE in all caps below it.
“This part has very little to do with business and a whole lot to do with minding our personal business,” I say, “the way we lead our lives.”
“You know, we are very critical of China for its censorship of the Internet, but how often do we censor our own lives through the Internet?” I ask, not expecting an answer, not wanting one. Not right now, at least.
“It could be a conscious decision, as with the mute button on Twitter which pretends accounts and users don’t exist,” I say. “Or it could be something deeper, more insidious, as with the algorithms Twitter and Facebook employ which only show us what we are calibrated to like on our newsfeeds.”
I pause again, exhale hard, knowing that what comes next is something quote-worthy; something people will hold in me or hold against me.
“It’s hard to develop a perspective,” I begin, stressing the space between each word, “when you are only getting the one someone else thinks you prefer.
“Former political consultant Cass Sunstein thinks the Internet has only furthered our ideological differences, and that evidence is available to anyone who’s bothered to turn on the television during our country’s polarized—and pathetic—political debates.”
I think about Donald Trump again, who’s still on the screen above my head. I think about Ted Cruz and Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, and Republicans and Democrats and the Right and the Left and the disappearing middle, I mean the floor that will drop beneath our feet, and everyone talking over everyone else.
“Likes become locks, and personalizing becomes profiling, driving individuals to ever more rigid and extreme positions,” I continue. “It’s great for community-building, but horrible if you are in the line of questioning cultural norms, which we all need to be in the business of. Without questions, we can’t create answers; without a response, we can’t create a dialogue.”
If I end now, it’ll be a success, I think, if only because I came here to get people to question their own lives, the things they take for granted or the things they never take into account in the first place. But there’s still so many questions to ask. And after all, I think, we’re probably only at the seven-minute mark.
“You give dating sites your city, your gender, your age, and who you think you’re looking for,” I continue, “and they find your new date after plugging in the very limiting data.
“Mushfake is a term that originated in prison culture; it refers to ‘making do’ with something when the real thing is not available. When people can’t find satisfaction in person, they turn to the virtual community of the Internet. That’s why in Korea right now, the most popular program is called muk-bang, which translates to ‘eating broadcasts.’”
Cue the strangest slide of the day, I think, or hope. The most eye-opening slide. The photo they’ll remember long after I step off the stage and re-emerge into the darkness, the half-lit amphitheater, all those faces and bodies and eyes.
“At 8 o’clock every night, 45,000 Koreans watch another stranger eating dinner,” I say, listening to the laughter, laughing a bit myself. “These viewers are young, alone, hungry, and they eat right along with the stranger on the screen.”
“Could it be that they are hungering for something more?” I ask, looking briefly behind me for the first time, trying to make contact with the figures on the projection screen, sitting at the dinner table alone and watching a stranger eating on a screen, paying for the privilege. “Something real.”
So much of my life is predicated on pretending or performance, I think, silently, picturing an earlier performance from today, one that included poet Jane Wong, each of us performing a poem and discussing the language of poetics. Jane’s talk included anecdotes about her family and her childhood, being raised in a Chinese take-out restaurant, her family’s migration from China, the Cultural Revolution and the Great Leap Forward Famine, as she brought to life the beautiful “poetics of haunting.”
Mine was about interferences and unintended epiphanies and I began by asking the audience to turn your phones on, and raise the volume, as I began reciting my poem “yes we’re open” to the accompaniment of several dozen rings, beeps, and notifications. Nothing had ever seemed more like poetry to me at that moment. That moment, and any other.
I didn’t know any of this until I Googled it.
“How often do we curate a very limited existence for our real life,” I implore, “because of our actions in the digital world?”
“Online you can always get what you want,” I say, responding to my own question. “But what you need, that’s a much harder thing to find.
“And what’s more, in a society with too many choices and too little time, our natural inclination is to ignore most of it.”
I reach in my pocket again, mimicking the every-second act of removing my phone, using my thumb, using my index.
“Click,” I say. “Scroll. Scroll. Click.”
Cue slide, new title, the words Murmurations Of Our New Media scrawled across the header. It’s important to always look forward, in life but also this talk. Another rule of how to Talk Like TED, and I believe it. The best conclusions, I always tell my students, are the ones that point forward, the ones that take this subject and push it in a new direction, something the reader might explore, something you yourself might investigate.
“Which brings me to the future,” I say, “because we are all constantly projecting our futures, with the same intensity by which we track our present footsteps.
“Here are some stats that you might find interesting.”
Cue a slide, two of them in quick succession. But not yet.
“One in five people on Earth have no clean drinking water. Yet one in five people on Earth own a smartphone. This isn’t an estimate; this is taken from UNESCO’s Institute for Statistics.”
Pause, breathe, let the audience take this in, maybe let them feel bad about their own lives, just a little bit, enough to want to be better. A little bit and never enough.
“The power to change our future depends on changing our present way of using those digital devices. And this,” I add, “is how we currently use our devices.”
I glance behind me, the second or third time today, reading from the PowerPoint even though I don’t really need to. I’ve memorized these stats. They live in me because they are my life.
- 48 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube every minute.
- 25 percent of people on Earth have a Facebook account.
- There will be more words written on Twitter in the next two years than contained in all the books ever printed.
“The Internet has also equalized journalism,” I say, “photography, philanthropy, music, filmmaking, and everything in between.”
I had written pornography too, but I leave that out, feeling bad about it. Bad that I felt bad in the first place, that I felt the need to leave anything out, especially pornography, because if there’s one aspect of culture that proves that the medium creates the message, it’s pornography. Tied to all kinds of DIY production across the Web beginning in the Nineties and continuing through today, the technical feasibility to upload amateur porn excites a response that would not otherwise have happened.
“It has opened the doors,” I say, thinking as I say this that I just closed, at the very least, one. “It is the door from which we can become liminal.
“We created the Internet,” I say, still maybe frowning a bit, maybe with my eyes, and I wonder if that’s visible in the video, or if no one would ever know if I wasn’t telling you about it now; if I wasn’t telling you about how I felt today and not just what I said.
“And now the Internet is re-creating us.”
“Ever play telephone?” I ask, another question, another half-second pause, and probably I consider that there’s a good chance no one here has actually ever played telephone.
“Someone starts with a statement, right? And then the statement gets passed around until the last person in the chain receives the message and has to repeat it. The revelation is only that every message is subject to miscommunication. We’ve all been there. We’re all there today.
“Twenty-eight percent of Twitter’s 500 million tweets a day are retweets; people just passing along other people’s thoughts. Our liminal self has been given the opportunity to flourish, but it will flounder in apathy, stagnancy, and imitation.”
In 2016, I think, and much earlier, anyone with access to the Internet is a writer. But instead of depending on creativity, we transport information, archiving, assembling, curating, and cutting and pasting through multiple windows. Windows which open into other windows. Except the beautiful horizon is only another block of text, something we bookmark, forward, parse and skim, but never actually read.
As I think this I wonder who might be scrolling through their newsfeeds right now, doing the same thing.
And if everyone is a writer, I think, then no one is; Roland Barthes’ “death of the author” has finally manifested in physical form through a horde of unauthored words, simultaneously documentarian and anonymous*, and completely ephemeral. Our work survives only so long as we keep scrolling.
The trade-off to the limited shelf-life of this kind of cultural text is global visibility, everyone rippling through the same electronic waves and producing shimmers of life that evaporate immediately upon impact the way a real wave does when it hits the shore.
“We are at once the most informed generation in the history of the world and the least engaged,” I say, my thoughts colliding with my speech, the presentation, the teleprompter, whatever it is I’d prepared to say. “Studies at several universities have tracked our rise in narcissism and also shown a correlated decrease in empathy. One study, conducted by the University of Michigan found that college students were forty percent less empathetic than they were in 1979.
“And at the same time, the world’s population is getting smarter, much smarter. IQ scores have risen significantly with each generation, not just in a few places but in all countries in which IQ data was available.”
I think about my own students, my course called “Identity, Image, & Intimacy in the Age of the Internet & Celebrity.” It’s a mouthful but my mouth is always full with words, and especially today.
I often think about my role as an instructor, my role as a student, the two roles being a lot more similar than most people consider. The role of the writer, too, is the same. The real role, I mean, not a word hoarder or content curator but a writer. We are here to ask questions. We are here to provoke a response.
“People are spending more and more time learning through liminal mediums,” I say. “Like the Internet. And with increased access to multimedia comes increased possibilities of peer-to-peer learning, one person to another, and it’s in that shared space where real dialogue begins.”
I look behind me, above me, one last time. Wanting there to be birds. Needing there to be birds. There’s birds, right? I think, and I think you can probably also tell in the video that I’m nervous there won’t be any birds when I look behind me, when I look above my head.
“You’re probably wondering why there’s a video of birds flying behind me,” I say, pausing, laughing, smiling (there’s birds).
“This is called a murmuration; we’ve all looked up in the evening and seen one; they are beautiful, because all the starlings are united, collaborating, and creating something powerful.”
I pause again, because I know I’ve got to deliver something else, something new or something you can take as new in this forever-new culture, where everything old is new again. Or vice versa. I still don’t know which.
“It only takes a single bird making the slightest shift in course to move the entire flock.”
“So as we question our cultural norms and rules, and the social scripts we follow or re-evaluate because of them,” I continue, thinking where I’ll be later today, or tomorrow, or five minutes from now, because I’m always in more than one place at once, and especially in this moment.
“I want us to dare to be liminal. Dare to shift gears. Dare to ask questions. Start by asking yourself one today.”
I started with a question. I always want to end with one. Not just now, I mean. My whole life. The end of my life. I’d rather end on another question. Something you can take up. Something you can answer for me.
Where do I want to go now?
Who do I want to become?
Brooklyn, May 5, 2016 AND Fort Lauderdale, March 23, 2016
* What does it mean to be at once observational and undisclosed? This paradox is another byproduct of our proliferation of content; the aspect of oversharing that is so often overlooked is the veil we use to re-present what we share: our realities. We are collectors, sure, adamant to curate evidence that we exist as individuals, but we do so in a communitarian way, passing ourselves around and passing ourselves off in an imitation game, a photostat with slight variations, something that spells out identity. Here I am or, more accurately, this is me(me).
Click here to see Chris Campanioni’s TED Talk.